Originally published by Chris Schulz of The Spinoff
A West Auckland theme park had big ambitions but didn't last the distance. Chris Schulz asks former staff members what became of the fun park that was meant to be 'bigger than Rainbow's End'.
From her rundown office, Karen Crossley could hear lions roar. Thanks to budget cuts, the pride of up to eight hadn't been fed, and they made a particular noise that sent a shiver down her spine. Throughout the day, their cries for food intensified, becoming louder, hangrier.
No one was ever hurt, but sometimes a lion would escape through a fence in search of food, forcing staff to lock themselves inside until it was caught. Other times, rangers would drive jeeps into the lion enclosure that would then break down. They would sneak out, or sit, quiet and still, waiting to be rescued.
As office manager, Crossley was in charge of fixing all of that, but not having enough money for horse meat, the lions' favourite food, wasn't the only issue on her mind.
By late 1988, she had been employed for most of her adult life at the West Auckland theme park, founded on sprawling grass fields in Te Atatū Peninsula just a short drive from the northwestern motorway. From every vantage point, you could see the water's edge, the sun glinting off the harbour, the bridge shimmering in the distance.
"It was marvellous," says one former staff member of the view.
Things weren't quite so sunny behind the scenes. By then, the park had been through several iterations – opening as Leisureland in the early 1980s, morphing into Footrot Flats Fun Park around 1984, then winding down into Something Different Fun Park after the global financial crisis curbed spending habits.
Crossley had seen it all, from its early struggles to entice customers, to queues of people winding down the street, hoping for a chance to spend the day on rollercoasters, gondolas, go-karts and bungee jumps, making memories that would last them a lifetime.
Now, the park was well past its peak. Lack of income meant the power kept getting turned off. Security had been cut back and overnight break-ins happened often. Yet the park remained open seven days a week, closing only for Christmas Day. Its busiest days were weekends and school holidays, and Crossley would carry the day's takings to the bank on her own, a daunting proposition on the mean streets of Te Atatū North, then a notoriously rugged suburb. If anyone confronted her, she had a plan: hand over the money and run.
Every day delivered Crossley new problems to deal with. Recently, a circus had moved onsite to join the theme park rides, and the animals were troubled. Jose the baboon caught and beheaded sparrows to eat, sending parents and crying kids running to her office to complain. If Bubba the chimpanzee didn't receive his daily icecream treat, he'd lash out. He once socked a keeper straight in the face. A rogue camel escaped into the warm asphalt carpark and charged at guests trying to park their cars. When Crossley attempted to intervene, the camel set its sights on her, sending her running, screaming.
She'd already been battered by a ram, attacked by a turkey, rescued peacocks running down the main street, and spent all day having obscenities yelled at her. After a stint in the park's bar, two cockatoos had been taught how to swear, and were no longer considered appropriate for public appearances. Crossley would hear "F*** you, f***wit!" being parroted from the rafters in her office as she attempted to balance the books.
One day, she was visited by a neighbour who believed the park's cute donkey that took kids for rides had been butchered in their driveway. It wasn't a donkey – it was half a cow discarded over the fence. But Crossley thought a dead donkey was entirely possible. By now, the park was in disarray, and nothing could surprise her. Eventually and with no warning, after nearly a decade in operation, the park, which had operated under three names, and saw tens of thousands of people enjoy its facilities, shut its gates for the final time.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Crossley had signed up to work at a theme park with big dreams. It was supposed to become the "Disneyland of the Pacific", a theme park designed to stand the test of time, to grow in size, compete with and dominate Rainbow's End. She'd been there throughout the 1980s, watching it become a destination for a generation of kids growing up around New Zealand. Every school holidays, they'd come out to the West Auckland park to visit Driver's Town, where they could earn their first "driver's licence", jump off New Zealand's first bungee jump, use sacks to slip down a corrugated iron slide, and spend all day playing laser tag, video games and mini-golf. To refuel they'd head to Rangi's, a takeaway bar known for its cheeseburgers and thick shakes.
But, by the beginning of 1989, the park was in its dying days. The 1987 stock market crash had changed habits. Money wasn't readily available, and if it was, no one was spending it at theme parks. The council demanded more in rent and rates. Bringing in the animals from Massey's nearby Lion Safari Park, and joining forces with a circus, were last-ditch efforts to save the park. It wasn't working.
"People weren't coming," says Crossley. "They didn't like seeing lions in cages."
Instead, she worked seven days a week, plugging holes, sorting out issues, capturing escaped animals, trying to find money to pay the bills, hoping things would come right. It was thankless work. It never ended.
Many years later, Crossley sits at a table in her mum's house, sipping tea and whispering "oh my God" to herself every time another memory comes to her. Now employed at a West Auckland supermarket filling online orders, she still can't believe a lot of the things she experienced, things that happened in front of her own eyes. For one thing, it was never supposed to go full Tiger King. But there she was, living "a nightmare" every day.
"I didn't have time to eat," Crossley says. "There was never a dull moment."
"We built the rollercoaster," remembers Philip Wilkinson. "I was in fifth form."
In the early 1980s, Wilkinson was in school when he found himself a part-time job that made him the envy of his friends. He spent his weekends working at Leisureland, the brand new theme park everyone was talking about. It had bumper boats, a video game parlour, a restaurant, a souvenir shop and a tuck shop called Aunt Dolly's.
"It was the fun park in Auckland," says Wilkinson, who still remembers the competition between the city's competing theme parks.
"Rainbow's End was around, but we were much bigger than Rainbow's End."
There was a good reason for that. Driver's Town was Leisureland's main attraction: a network of concrete roads where kids could sit written and verbal tests, get their very own "driver's licence", then head out and drive small, purpose-built cars around the tracks.
"You'd get … a written and a verbal test," he says. "People had to prove they could drive properly around the track before they were given their licence."
Made out of cardboard, with their photo stuck to it, kids carried these with them like a badge of honour.
When he finished school, Wilkinson drifted away from the park, but it wasn't long until he was enticed back. At the time, unionised workforces meant park staff received time-and-a-half on Saturdays and double-time on Sundays – much more than his teacher's salary.
"We were being paid astronomic wages," he says. "Teachers earned $20,000 a year, I was getting $30,000 a year."
Soon enough, he packed in his teaching dreams and joined the park full-time, working his way through various departments before becoming operations manager.
The park was popular at weekends and during school holidays, but weekdays were tough.
"Nobody was coming during the week," says Wilkinson. "That wasn't a good thing."
Then Dave Dobbyn released a song that changed everything. 'Slice of Heaven' was the lead single from the soundtrack for Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tale, a 1984 film celebrating Wal, Dog and Horse, the characters from Murray Ball's popular newspaper comic strip. It became a No 1 Australasian hit, the movie topped the box office, and park management signed a deal with Ball to turn Leisureland into the Footrot Flats Fun Park.
It spurred a new run of success. Suddenly, the park became the place to go. Actors dressed as Wal, Dog and Horse the cat mingled with customers. The carpark would be full, with queues down the street full of people waiting to get in. Its popularity meant an influx of cash, leading to the addition of new rides. A rollercoaster, the Cannonball Run, was built. A laser tag course morphed into a paintball challenge. Go-karts, kayak rides, mini-golf, BMX tracks, train rides, gondola rides and even helicopter trips made appearances at the park.
Famous faces began showing up. Murray Ball was a regular. So were members of When the Cat's Away, the 'Melting Pot' singers who performed concerts at the park. Mickey and Minnie Mouse showed up, on loan from Disney.
"Tim Shadbolt used to come in all the time with his mayoral chains on and drive on the train," says Crossley. "That's what Tim Shadbolt was like."
It also became a popular target for thieves trying to steal tickets. Wilkinson was at a party one night when a man holding a knife bellowed: "You threw me out of Footrot Flats and I'm going to kill you."
Wilkinson's First XV rugby mates helped bundle the offender out of the party.
A bungee jump was constructed, looking nothing like those in action around Aotearoa today. A complex network of scaffolding 22m-high was erected near the water park. A newspaper report at the time called it "the world's first commercial bungee jumping tower". The few willing to give it a go would climb a series of wooden planks to the top, before being tied up with a bungee cord and instructed to jump towards an inflatable landing pad below them.
Photos taken at the time make the tower seem terrifyingly unstable. "Did he jump?" is how an interview with the park's marketing manager Gary Pring was headlined at the time. No, even he didn't give it a go.
"It was terrifying just to climb up the damn thing," says Pring. "You'd hang on tight."
The attraction didn't prove to be as popular as park officials thought it would be, and it was removed.
"It just didn't fire, to be quite honest," says Pring.
The terrifying bungee attraction didn't deter thousands from heading out west. But in some cases, less was more.
"It was bloody hard work," says Wilkinson. "We hummed at 2000 people … 3000 people was a problem. You ran out of food, you had people standing in queues for too long. We'd send the entertainers out, but when it's scorching hot, you couldn't do that for too long."
Crossley remembers standing in her office alongside others trying to keep up with counting the stacks of money coming in through the ticket booths.
"We had a big safe," she says. "The money was in there."
Just before 5pm, staff would be accompanied by security guards and carry it all to the bank.
One incident has gone down in Footrot Flats Fun Park history. Staff working the rollercoaster let one carriage leave before the other had finished, causing an accident.
"The second carriage ran into the back of the first carriage and lifted it off the tracks," remembers Wilkinson.
Passengers were stuck, and firefighters helped them get down. It made the 6pm news.
"Everyone was going, 'Oh, this is dreadful'," says Crossley.
Instead of being a deterrent, it boosted the park's fortunes.
"The next day was so busy it wasn't funny. Everyone wanted to go on the rollercoaster. We couldn't keep up with the amount of people that came to the park."
Pring was living in a caravan onsite. He remembers it as the best time of his life.
"I loved it," he says. "It was just fantastic. I was doing live shows every day, out with the characters."
To relax, he would take an evening stroll.
"You'd be looking towards the [Auckland] Harbour Bridge, saltwater flats. It was magnificent and peaceful."
Sometimes, he'd come across intruders and chase them out of the park with a hammer. Aside from cheap rent, he had another reason for living at the park.
"It was a great place to bring a hot date at night," he says. "No one's ever known this, but we'd go on the bumper boats, and I'd take the train around for a circuit. The neighbours must have wondered why it was going at eight or nine at night."
Talk to fans of the park in the present day, and this is the time everyone remembers: an upbeat park packed with kids full of fun and adventures.
"We had everything from boxing events, to sporting activities, to wild pig races, you name it," says John St Clair Brown.
He bought the park when it was called Leisureland, and owned it until the end. Offering new rides, attractions and activities was the only way to keep customers coming back, he says.
"We had a cafe there with a bar, we had horses there. It was always humming as a place to go and have fun."
So what happened? Former staff say there are many reasons for the park's demise. Wilkinson blames the constant stress of finding new ways to promote it.
"Coming into Christmas [or] school holidays, you want a brand new attraction ready to go," he says. "That's … $250,000 back then."
He also blames the 1987 stock market crash.
"It struggled financially. No one had spare cash."
Then there was the final name change. "For f***'s sake, who calls something 'Something Different Fun Park?' You're doomed."
Pring believes the park's location was to blame.
"In those days you weren't allowed signage on the motorway or anything like that," he says. "When you look at Rainbow's End, it's right on the main drag, it's easily accessible. There wasn't a bus service to Te Atatū, there were no trains, public transport was next to nothing … it was a pain in the butt to get there."
He did his best to promote it by taking characters around Auckland, performing at the Easter Show. But Footrot Flats mania was flatlining.
"It was a lot of work. We didn't have a lot of budget … the characters were gradually winding down. There was talk of a second movie coming out that never eventuated."
St Clair Brown blames the council for increasing rent and rates when the park could least afford it. He already owned Victoria Park Market and Mt Hutt ski field, and would soon buy Waiwera Hot Pools, another theme park with a controversial past. But his West Auckland theme park was the worst performer in his portfolio. He claims it never made him a profit.
"We had to decide whether to throw good money after bad, or whether to walk away. We just gave up. We just closed it up. We couldn't continue, really. It folded into the night."
Crossley believes moving the animals in was the beginning of the end. They'd come from Massey's Lion Safari Park, and changed the park's vibe completely. A gondola ride led visitors into the lion enclosure, legs dangling just out of reach. Along with the circus, it meant an elephant, chimpanzee, baboon, lions, tigers, a camel and many other animals were on display.
"Things could have been done better," she says.
She didn't agree with the many changes being made, including the bar and boxing ring that led to drunks wandering around at dusk.
"That wasn't the idea of the park. I think it was a last attempt to save the place."
One day she arrived to find the gates locked and a sign posted on the door. Memories are fuzzy, and no one can remember the exact date, but most believe it was the beginning of 1989 when the park closed for good.
"There was a note saying 'We're in receivership'," says Crossley. "We didn't even get notice it was closing down. I didn't even get my holiday pay. There was nothing, no redundancy. Over a decade I was there."
She was headhunted to work at a furniture company, and remains a proud West Auckland resident.
Pring, meanwhile, received rights to use the Footrot Flats costumes and performed at malls and A&P shows around the South Island for years afterwards. He's stayed down there ever since.
Wilkinson lives and works in West Auckland, just a few kilometres from the old theme park site, running a plastics company. He credits the park with teaching him everything he knows about business, and is left with lasting memories.
"I ended up marrying the girl that played the Dog," he says. 'Slice of Heaven' was their wedding song. "It's always a fun story: 'I married the Dog from Footrot Flats'."
St Clair Brown is 76 now, lives in Whangaparāoa, and remains in business. His firm Coastal Cabins makes small, affordable houses and ships them around the North Island. He refuses to retire, instead preferring to keep busy after the death of his daughter from cancer in 2017.
"I was looking for a distraction," he says. "I certainly got distracted, and still am."
He hasn't remained friends with anyone from the park, and doesn't have any photos on the wall, or mementos in storage. Ask him about the good times, all the happy memories customers have of the place, and he replies: "It was a pain in the ass. It was always nothing but trouble."
Nothing is left of the park now. Te Atatū North has become Te Atatū Peninsula, a gentrified suburb full of parents pushing prams, single dwellings being turned into multiple townhouses, and quite a few Teslas. On the park's site sit quiet family homes with the same views that park users used to enjoy. People pay more than $2 million for them now, far more than the park's 1980s entrance fee of $14 for a family of four. The only local tribute can be found at Mr Illingsworth, a nearby bistro and bar where you can order a "Footrot" mocktail full of layered fruit juice, honey and citrus.
Instead, fans share memories in a small Facebook group that's updated infrequently. Occasionally, links to Trade Me listings are posted for sales of old Driver's Town cars, or photos posted of old menus from Rangi's. On YouTube, just two videos are available. One's an old ad with a catchy jingle. In another, an American tourist wanders through the park for a full 15 minutes, showing off the train, cars and gondola. A young girl attempts to slide down the huge corrugated iron slide. A staff employee can be overheard saying: "What they want to do is develop this as a destination, like Disneyland is a destination when you go to California."
Wilkinson has lost count of the number of times people have told him, "I wish it was there now." He wishes the same thing, and says it was always built to last the distance. That way, he could visit it with his wife whenever they wanted to reminisce about where they met, worked together, and fell in love, him making sure the rollercoaster ran on time, her running around in a sweltering furry dog costume.
"If it could have survived through that 80s period, it would have been bigger and better than Rainbow's End. We'd still be there today."
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